When I was completing my last semester at WSU 10 years ago, I never imagined I would end up in Antarctica, providing computer network support for the U.S. Antarctic Program. I work on the RVIB Nathaniel B. Palmer (NBP), an icebreaker that is contracted by the National Science Foundation for scientific research in Antarctica. The ship spends several months a year in the waters and sea ice surrounding the world’s coldest, driest, and most remote continent.
I am currently working on a science cruise called SHALDRIL-Shallow Drilling Along the Antarctic Continental Margin. Core drilling from a single, unassisted icebreaker has never been done before in the icy waters surrounding Antarctica. The variable environmental conditions with the weather, ice, and sea currents make it a risky endeavor. The drill could break if the ice or currents move the ship a significant distance during the drilling.
The purpose of SHALDRIL is two-fold: to collect core samples from the sea floor along the Antarctic Peninsula and to test the drilling equipment. Much valuable data is stored in the layers of sediment that lie beneath the sea floor. Cores can reveal information about the history of glaciation in the region and its impact on climate, ocean circulation, and biological evolution. This data has never been accessible until now.
A group of U.S. scientists came up with the idea of doing a SHALDRIL cruise more than 14 years ago. Many years of planning and generous financing by the National Science Foundation have brought SHALDRIL from an idea to a reality.
The NBP underwent major renovations to prepare for this cruise. In 2003, the NBP was modified to accommodate the drill. A dynamic positioning system was installed to help keep the ship on station while the drill is being operated.
The drilling equipment on the ship includes a derrick weighing 43 tons, plus various other heavy pieces of equipment and machinery. Altogether, the drilling package weighs more than five times the normal load carried by the ship.
This raised questions about the stability of the NBP-especially when she encounters rough seas. Approximately 275 tons of a cement-like gel was pumped into her ballasts to promote stability.
Sixty-three people are sailing on SHALDRIL’s maiden voyage. Seventeen are members of the science party. Approximately half of those onboard are ship’s crew. Eight people manage and operate the drill. The rest of the people, including me, provide science support.
The NBP handled herself well during the three-day crossing from Punta Arenas, Chile, to the northern tip of the Antarctic Peninsula. I admit I was a little nervous about the stability of the ship. The stretch of ocean we crossed-the Drake Passage-is one of the roughest stretches of ocean in the world.
Drilling operations at the first site were successful. We drilled in Maxwell Bay, along the west side of the Antarctica Peninsula. The crew drilled for two consecutive days, during which the water surrounding the ship stayed mostly clear of ice. The weather remained calm. The scientists were thrilled to obtain core samples to a depth of 108.2 meters. As one scientist put it, it was a “home run on the first pitch.”
Despite the drilling victory early in the cruise, SHALDRIL has faced her share of challenges. Many of the sites the scientists want to drill are covered with sea ice, making it impossible to drill. Additional difficulties include continuously changing weather and difficulties with drilling through tough glacial sediment. Even with these roadblocks, many of the scientists have remained optimistic: SHALDRIL is proving to be a valuable learning experience for future drilling cruises.
Day-to-day life on the ship stays busy and ever changing. Sometimes when I’m working inside the computer lab, I feel like I am working in a computer lab at a university. Then someone mentions a flock of Adele penguins is frolicking off the starboard side of the ship, and I am reminded of where I am.
Julianne Lamsek sailed on the first
SHALDRIL cruise in April 2005. She graduated from Washington State
University in 1995 with degrees in broadcasting and business. When
she’s not working in Antarctica, she enjoys rock climbing and
freelance videography. Julianne lives in Seattle.